January 8, 2009

Michael Jeh

Pride of place

Michael Jeh



It is poignant that Kevin Pietersen was on safari in Africa last week. Inspired perhaps by the roar of a young lion, in the prime of youth, on the cusp of inheriting a kingdom, KP threw down the challenge to the ECB, confident that his ageing rival would realise that the new King had arrived and make way without the need for a dangerous fight.

Cricket, like other professional sports before it, had better get used to this. It will happen increasingly so, as cricketers fully come to terms with the massive shift in power that comes with huge salaries and multiple paymasters.

To that extent, the ECB’s alleged disenchantment with KP’s ultimatum is a breath of fresh air. Rumour has it that if he hadn’t resigned from the captaincy, the ECB may have removed him from that honour anyway. If true, it is a brave but ultimately futile attempt to redress the balance of power between employer and employee. In this instance, KP may have sensed that his earlier brinkmanship was a miscalculation but it is a portent of the way things will be in international cricket.

Professional sport, especially the big money team sports like football, rugby, cricket, basketball, baseball etc, is a curious beast to describe. In some senses, players, coaches and administrators like to think that they inhabit an industry that is no different to the world of business and commerce. Instead of trading in widgets and whatsits, they trade in runs, wickets or goals.

CEO’s run the business with a ruthless eye on the bottom line. Employees justify their exorbitant salaries and cosseted lifestyles, replete with a veritable army of medical staff and personal trainers by claiming that they are merely doing a job like any other normal person in the community.

This argument breaks down a little bit when these same athletes want to be treated as ‘special’ when it suits them but also claim that they are just normal people when their excessive behaviours attract any unwanted media attention. Which is it? Are you a normal person living by normal rules or are you someone quite special with role model status and high-roller salary?

What I really want to explore though is the difference between sport and business and why they can never really be treated the same. Professional sport is possibly the only industry where the employees wield considerably more power than the CEO or coach/manager. With few exceptions, this highly unusual situation is at the root of the future problems that cricket administrators will face.

Where else does the CEO earn a fraction of what his ‘workers’ make? Same applies to coaches and managers and those charged with maintaining discipline. In business, the Chairman, President or CEO truly holds the whip hand, both in real power and probably in earning power too, which translates into real power anyway. In most team sports, it is the athlete who is the ultimate asset. And he knows it!

Think about the superstars like Warne, Lara, Tendulkar or Pietersen himself. They know full well that cricket needs them more than they need their CEO. They make ten times the money (at least), they get a hundred times the media attention and they put bums on seats in stadia or on TV. No CEO or coach has that sort of pulling power.

With the advent of the IPL cash cow, these marquee players feel an even greater sense of empowerment. Playing for one’s country may still be the ultimate honour but the cheques are bigger in ‘private enterprise’. It’s no different to signing up to fight for your country’s army for good wages or as a mercenary for a rich warlord who pays handsomely for performance without emotional ties to any national flag. Discipline becomes extremely hard to enforce because the players can choose another employer who will pay just as much, perhaps much more!

There’s no real solution to the problem, not when the players continue to command the lion’s share of the money, compared to their so-called bosses. If it honestly came down to a battle between Ricky Ponting and James Sutherland, who do you think would win that battle? How can the zoo keeper really expect blind obedience when the lion knows he is unarmed and defenceless? In football, try telling someone like David Beckham that his coach has more power than him? By the way, who is his coach? See what I mean?

In this instance, KP may have misjudged his power play slightly but the writing is on the wall. The lion tamers know that they are the bosses in name only. On the open savannah, the young lions know full well that their bite is more powerful than their master’s roar.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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Posted by pat on (January 10, 2009, 6:31 GMT)

One hole with comparing football/soccer to international cricket - in football if a player is ill-disciplined and sacked, you can buy another player to replace him - no matter where he is playing e.g. Italy, Spain, England. You cannot 'trade' players in cricket - England cannot buy a Ricky Ponting or Shiv Chanderpaul to replace KP. He deserves his place in the England team on skill - but he may not necessarily deserve his spot. Unfortunately for England he can not be sold for millions of pounds in the transfer window

Posted by Adam Binks on (January 9, 2009, 14:12 GMT)

The bottom line for me is professionalism. The differences between soccer and cricket(certainly the FA and ECB) are not that great. The FA appointed the football equivalent of Peter Moores in Steve McClaren and that ended in tears and I think the players had a large hand in that just as KP(and others who when questioned by Hugh Morris voiced their concerns about Moores) did in this situation. As regards James Sutherland I think that CA is a better run body than the ECB because it employs people from the business world to control its "employees". The ECB is too close to the players and therefore lacks control. I think we forget the impact the Tesco supermarket chairman Lord Ian McLaurin had on English cricket, I doubt he would have allowed this situation to escalate as Giles Clarke and Morris did. The players would have still been the key stakeholders in the business but their views would have been voiced via a private suggestion box rather than graffiti on the outside wall of the HQ

Posted by Michael Jeh on (January 9, 2009, 4:49 GMT)

Hi Flash Ash, I know that Ferguson used to be Beckham's coach at Man Utd but who is his coach now? And Alex F is a rare thing where his fame is almost bigger than any of his players. How many established international cricketers are less famous (and powerful) than their CEO's?

Thanks for all the interesting comments though. I've really enjoyed seeing the different perspectives. Just goes to show that the same situation can be viewed differently, according to the prisms of our own individual lenses.

Posted by Aussie Din ks on (January 8, 2009, 23:33 GMT)

I am not sure Pietersen should play for England at all after being stabbed in the back. If it was me and some one stabbed me in the back like that I would go to the WI and make other arrangements for after. I mean a happy team is a team you can trust not one that you can hardly stomach to look at.

Posted by Flash Ash on (January 8, 2009, 22:56 GMT)

Michael

David Beckhams coach was Alex Fergason and you may remember a well recorded event when Beckham was hit by a flying football boot thrown by the coach!! Dressing rooms are never easy! Beckham soon left MUFC!!

As to recent rift, no player is above Country, if IPL offers more money short term then so be it, if they want to spurn Country honours (and still very lucritive sponsorship deals!) then let them go as they will divide the "Dressing room"

Cricket can learn much from "Football" in that many coaches/teams have soon discarded players, even if very talented!!if they don't fall into line, but then again football is run/managed by coaches (or Managers as we used to call them in the UK!!).

Good post though.

Cheers

Posted by luke on (January 8, 2009, 20:48 GMT)

Is it possible for them to slide any lower? aren't they sixth with NZ WI and BD behind them?

As for greatness; KP and Flintoff had an absolutely wonderful 2005 ashes series. They were inspirational, combative, impressive but for me, an outstanding performance evey 7/8 games which at best saves a test is no measure of greatness.

Chanders, as a fairly random example, is easily as great as pieterson (if not more so because just lacking a 'switch-hit' which is almost a definition of KP: is it a weapon? not really, any straight hit would suffice! Will it be talked about (even if I don't help win the game)? Yes!

That's probably a bit harsh but KPs fouth innings is a sorry read - he doesn't save or win matches all that often and he is in a reasonable cricket team. I still love his 2005 Ashes though.

Posted by Sree on (January 8, 2009, 19:17 GMT)

As an outsider, it looked to me like under pieterson the English team was for the first time getting off their big fat bum and starting to play hard. Now they are back to strauss ... good old english tea and biscuit captain.

It will now take them another couple of decades to win anything of value in the shorter forms of the game. I feel sorry for KP ... If a coach changed my team when I am on vacation, I would want him sacked too ...

Posted by Aussie Din ks on (January 8, 2009, 14:22 GMT)

The truth is England have two great players Freddy and Kevin the others are just good. If you let Kevin Pieterson go England will not be in line to challenge for the top spot but will slide slowly down the ICC table. So please people do not think that you do not need Pieterson you actually do.

Posted by Tboy on (January 8, 2009, 13:58 GMT)

KP handled the situation badly. He should have perhaps argued for Vaughan to be considered for the English squad after watching how Michael & his dodgy knee performed in county cricket before offering ultimatums to the ECB. Cotton Fitzsimmons (former Coach of the Phonoex Suns) once stated to a coaching protege "you will never control the big name players just make sure you get a bigger pay cheque then the bench players then you can control them." A bit tongue in cheek but Cotton obviously knew his place in the grand scheme & was a veteran coach. Cricket is now catching up with the high paying sports (NBA.Soccer etc) & it will be interesting to see how the BCCi (nee ICC?)manages the increased egos, incomes and expectations of players & coaches. Cricket managed to bounce back from the brink after the challenges of Packer & World Series Cricket (for the better I might add), but can it manager a major divergence (IPL & ICL) in the vital sub continental market for a prolonged period?

Posted by D A on (January 8, 2009, 11:14 GMT)

What a mess the kp, moores and england team are in. The popular belief from the newspapers is that this will affect englands performance in the ashes. WHY. Professional cricketers being affected by a bit of a row. How sad can this make them. Stop finding excuses for a predicted poor performance and get on with it. To the team, you are not the local rounders team you are supposedly Englands best, so act like it and grow up.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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